Coping with the Winter Blues: Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder

It is easy to understand why, this time of year, many are struck with a case of the winter blues. We leave for work before the sun comes up and head home in the dark barely glimpsing daylight. As the days get shorter and colder many find themselves dealing with sadness, increased appetite and excessive sleeping. What they may be experiencing is more than a case of the winter blues, but rather seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Many of my clients suffer from this disorder and often they just expect it is a part of the season that will pass, but there are treatments that can alleviate or lessen the symptoms.

SAD is a mood disorder associated with depression and related to seasonal variations of light. SAD has been linked to melatonin, a sleep-related hormone secreted by the brain’s pineal gland. This hormone, which can cause symptoms of depression, is produced at increased levels in the dark. So, as the days become shorter, these effects are felt by an estimated 6% of Americans. Eighty percent of those who suffer from SAD are estimated to be women, though the reasons for increased depression in women are not yet understood.

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, SAD symptoms include: regularly occurring symptoms of depression (e.g., excessive eating and sleeping and weight gain) during the fall or winter months; full remission from depression occur in the spring and summer months as well as a craving for sugary and/or starchy foods. Just as sunlight affects the seasonal activities of animals, such as reproductive cycles and hibernation, SAD may be an effect of seasonal light variations in humans. As seasons change, there is a shift in our “internal clocks” or circadian rhythm, due partly to these changes in sunlight patterns. This can cause our biological clocks to be out of “step” with our daily schedules. The most difficult months for SAD sufferers are January and February.

Phototherapy or bright light therapy has been shown to suppress the brain’s secretion of melatonin. Although, there have been no research findings to definitively link this therapy with an antidepressant effect, many people respond to the treatment. The device most often used today is a bank of white fluorescent lights on a metal reflector and a shield with a plastic screen. For mild symptoms, spending time outdoors or arranging homes and workplaces during the day to receive more sunlight may be helpful. One study found that an hour’s walk in winter sunlight was as effective as two and a half hours under bright light. If phototherapy doesn’t work, an antidepressant medication may prove effective in reducing or eliminating SAD symptoms, but there may be unwanted side effects to consider with medication.

If you or someone you know struggles with depression this time of year, you should contact your physician or a mental health professional to accurately determine A diagnosis and treatment. Keeping an accurate log of your mood, energy, eating and sleeping habits over time will be helpful for determining whether any changes are in fact seasonal. Although you may be tempted to boost your exposure to light around the home, consultation with a medical professional will be important because the intensity, frequency, and duration of light treatments may vary from individual to individual. Additionally, a professional may recommend other forms of treatment in addition to light therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and/or medications. Our psychologists and psychiatrists are available to answer your questions at (703) 723-2999 or

Remember that small things like a walk on a sunny winter day can be a boost both physical and mentally. And spring is only a few months away!

Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D

Clinical Psychologist